Thursday, 22 December 2011

Not So Independent Television

So last time we talked about bullying and censorship and other such cheerful things.  It's been a while since then and I have not had much time to get any real writing done, since I've had the Holidays and other things to deal with.  I did start working on a story idea that came to me on the bus (I tend to get my best ideas when spaced out while traveling) and I seem to be getting more and more mileage out of it each time I do a little digging.  Stephen King was right, the stories are there, buried in the sediment, and we writers are merely brushing away as much dust as we can to reveal what we can of the skeleton.

Anyway, a quick note before I go back to the trenches of the war between the Stormcloaks and the Tamriel Empire: there are a lot of cowards and reactionary twits in the media.

Happy hijacked-pagan-festival-of-your-choice.  Here it is, your moment of zen:

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

It's the Principal Of The Thing!

By now anyone who's remotely plugged in to US politics on the web will have heard all about the saga of the Kansas student who tweeted about the state Governor and wound up in the principal's office over it.  In short, she claimed that she had been rude to his face in a joke tweet that was not true - she had been present while he gave a talk to the class but never spoke to him.  Then the Governor's media monitors (yes, he has those) were trawling the web for people's personal opinions on him and decided they just had to make her life difficult for displaying 'disrespect'.  So they called the school and demanded that she be punished and forced to write an apology letter to the Governor, losing any chance the guy ever had at actually earning respect by petulantly demanding it.

She refused, her sister went to the press, and twitter exploded with the tag #heblowsalot.  Now Emma Sullivan is a brief household name, and Sam Brownback's name is mud.  Good job, that'll teach that little bitch for having an opinion.

What I find fascinating about this little story is the gulf that it displays.  Much like the income inequality between the 1% and the 99%, it seems to only ever get wider and those with the power and the privilege are digging in their heels, refusing to give up any ground.  For this situation to become what it did required a series of adults to be, in essence, not adults, and to not care.  It required grown men and women in the big bad world of politics to deliberately seek out negative comments on the Internet, care enough about them to find out who said them and when, and care enough still to think that an 18 year old high school student was worth their time harassing and bullying in order to make an example.  And then it required a school district and principal, presumably adults themselves, to bow to this ludicrous demand for an apology and drag the young woman to the office, berate her for an hour about what a terrible person she was for a tweet that took all of ten seconds to write, and waste everybody's time and energy.  And of course, it required all of these adults to act without the foresight to think that perhaps this was unreasonable and bound to look stupid to the rest of the planet.

An update on the story can be found here:

Anyway, you may remember from earlier I mentioned that part of the reason I left the Catholic church was the attitude of teachers in my Catholic high school, which tended to range from apathetic to despotic.  This is not purely a Catholic or religious issue, though.  I see it in education, policing, politics, and anything with any kind of hierarchy really.  It is a common human failing that seems to come crashing down particularly hard on the young as they are the most vulnerable.  When you are faced with a teacher screaming in your face with literally no justification, what recourse does a student have?  When they punish you for having done nothing wrong, or their punishment is overzealous and outrageous, what can you do or say?  All the power is theirs, the scales are entirely tipped in their favour.  Or so they think.  So they would insist, and in their childishness they fully believe that it should be so.  Yet this little story demonstrates that in essence they have no power but that which they are granted by people bending to their will.  Emma Sullivan refused to be cowed and simply said "No, I will not apologise, I will not accept a punishment".  And the school district backed down, revealing themselves to be complete cowards in the process as they tried to pretend in a statement that they never intended or tried to censor a student's speech.  This is what happens to those with power - they fear losing it, and most of all they fear that when they try to wield it they will discover it is simply not there.  Losing face is such anathema to them that it makes them act irrationally and tip their hand, revealing they hold jack shit.  Governor Brownback himself made a hollow apology, saying he was sorry for the actions of his staff and of course wiping his own hands of the mess.  I imagine he expects us to believe his staff trawl twitter for negative comments about the Governor for a hobby and it was never ordered or endorsed by him.  Regardless, as soon as this girl stood up and said "no", her myriad bullies crumbled and embarrassed themselves in their haste to pretend they had not been trying to bully her at all.

Unfortunately this approach does not work when you have to go it alone, and does not have such immediate results when the bully is licensed to hurt you with impunity.  I had to go it alone at school, and my bullies thus held all the cards.  The world has its bullies to deal with, and tweeting #heblowsalot a half million times is unlikely to stop them coming with their clubs and their chemical sprays.  It's not hopeless, but it is going to require that this time the meek dig their heels in, that this time the downtrodden decide that they shouldn't have to play by the rules either.  When the grown ups don't have to be grown up, when the child is the only one with courage, and when keeping the peace means spraying people in the face with a chemical weapon, maybe the meek shall inherit the Earth.

Now here it is to reflect upon, your moment of zen:

Wednesday, 23 November 2011


Well, it's been a while.  Over a week.  I think I must have gotten lost somewhere in the region of Skyrim.  Sorry about that.

Anyway, last time I talked about fan fiction, and how over time a piece I had received much commendation for turned out to look a little dog-eared.  My plan was to tinker with that and polish the overall piece, to make it suitable for enshrining here on the altar of the Internet.  Obviously I have been busy lately, and have not really had time to get out my red pen*.  Instead I have a climactic scene from a fan fiction I wrote years and years ago that could still do with a little dusting.  Here is the original scene, as written in the year 2001:

Hunched over the decaying, hideously disfigured body of his mother, Luke Skywalker glared up the stairs at the silent, immobile figure in the throne. At the side of the high-backed chair, slicing through the silence with his mechanical breathing, Darth Bane gazed back down at the boy.

"The other is here," Palpatine said suddenly, and, as if to confirm his word, the turbolift hissed open, and a young human female with chocolate brown hair slipped quietly into the room, then gasped at seeing her brother's frail state.

"Luke!" she cried, and knelt beside him. "Are you alright?" she asked, trying to avoid the desturbing...thing that was lying on the floor beside her. The thing with equally brown hair... Suddenly a realisation struck Leia. "Mother..."

Luke nodded, slowly, and turned to face his sister. His eyes were sunken in deep, purple sockets, and the rest of his skin was disturbingly pale. He also smelled strangely, as if he was burning.

"Excellent," Palpatine said, and rose from his throne.

Leia looked up at him, then at the shadow-like figure to his side. The black figure did not move.

Palpatine, however, continued to stride forward. "I now have the last in the line of the Jedi at my hands..." he said, and raised his hands before himself, stretching his fingers out.

Luke winced, and seemed to become very tense. This didn't help Leia's already frought nerves.

"Now, the Jedi shall become extinct, and The Sith will have their final revenge!" the Emperor spat, his face contorting with anger. Suddenly, blue bolts of electricity shot out from his fingertips, and seared their way through the air towards Luke and Leia, wrapping themselves around their violently shaking bodies.

Leia screeched in pain, but Luke remained quite silent, having destroyed his voice box already from screaming so much.

The crackling energy vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, and the Emperor grinned at the two smoking, twitching bodies.

Leia slowly raised her gaze upwards to Darth Bane's metal face-plate, and pleaded. "Master, please..."

Deep in the black helmet of Darth Bane, an old man blinked, and glanced sadly down at the Skywalkers, remembering when he had pleaded with their father to spare his life and save him over two decades ago, when the Jedi Council had been all but destroyed. He began to slowly stride away from the throne, forcing his metal body to obey his will, and reached out to the cloaked figure in front of him.

The Emperor raised his hands again, and blue energy sparked from them. However, instead of hitting the cowering young Skywalkers before him, they screeched over their heads. The Emperor noticed he was rising above the ground quickly, due to the metal hands clamped around his cloak. He roared as the energy crackled around him and the black figure who carried him, and screamed as he was dropped over the side of the railings beside his throne, into the chasm leading to the very bottom of the Death Star.

The black, metal figure dropped to his knees at the railings, and the blue energy that had coursed through him finally wrapped around his helmet then vanished. Kenobi slumped back against the side of the throne, as a young woman limped up the steps and crouched beside him.
"Thank you..." Leia whispered.

And here is the Special Edition:
Luke Skywalker glared up the stairs at the silent, immobile figure in the throne.  He stood hunched over the decaying disfigured body of his mother.   Atop the stairs, at the side of his master's chair like a Cyborrean battlehound, Darth Bane gazed back down at the boy.  His mechanical breathing sliced the silence. 
"The other is here," Palpatine said.  As if to confirm his word, the turbolift hissed open, and a young human female with chocolate brown hair slipped quietly into the room.  She gasped at seeing her brother's frail state.
"Luke!" she cried, and knelt beside him. "Are you all right?" she asked, trying to avoid the disturbing...thing that was lying on the floor beside her. The thing with equally brown hair... A whisper in the back of her mind, and suddenly a realisation struck Leia. "Mother..."
Luke nodded, slowly, and turned to face his sister. His eyes were sunken in deep, purple sockets, and the rest of his skin was pale. The smell of burning hung in the air.
"Excellent," Palpatine said, and rose from his throne.
Leia looked up at him, then at the shadow-like figure to his side. The black figure did not move.
Palpatine, however, continued to stride forward. "I now have the last in the line of the Jedi at my hands..." he said, and raised those crooked old hands before himself.  He stretched his fingers out.
Luke winced, became tense. Leia looked from him to the Emperor, neck whipping frantically.
"Now, the Jedi shall become extinct, and The Sith will have their final revenge!" the Emperor spat, his face contorting with anger. Blue bolts of electricity shot out from his fingertips and seared their way through the air towards Luke and Leia.  The surge of energy wrapped itself around their violently shaking bodies.
Leia screeched in pain.  Luke could no longer.
The crackling energy vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, and the Emperor grinned at the two smoking, twitching bodies.
Leia slowly raised her gaze upwards to Darth Bane's metal face-plate, and pleaded. "Master, please..."
Deep in the black helmet of Darth Bane, an old man blinked.  He looked sadly down at the Skywalkers, remembering when he had pleaded with their father to spare his life and save him over two decades ago, when the Jedi Council had been all but destroyed. He began to walk.  Slowly, step by step, he strode away from the throne, forcing his metal body to obey his will.  Bane reached out to the cloaked figure in front of him.
The Emperor raised his hands again.  Blue energy sparked from his fingertips.  However, instead of hitting the cowering young Skywalkers before him, they bolts screeched over their heads. The Emperor cried out; he was rising above the ground quickly.  Metal hands clamped around his cloak. He roared as the energy crackled around him and the black figure who carried him.  His screamed hung in the chamber as he was dropped over the side of the railings beside his throne, into the chasm leading to the very bottom of the Death Star.
The black, metal figure dropped to his knees at the railings, and the blue energy that had coursed through him finally wrapped around his helmet then vanished.  Kenobi slumped back against the side of the throne, as a young woman limped up the steps and crouched beside him.
"Thank you..." Leia whispered.

Quite a difference, right?  It still isn't perfect writing, and it may suffer from some of the common issues of fan fiction such as the rush to get the story out of the author's powerful imagination and onto the page.  It surprises me, looking over the whole piece, that I managed to retell the Star Wars saga in 55,000 words.  What would be a 20 page battle scene in a modern novel has been told in a few paragraphs.  That breathless enthusiasm is common in young writers and fan fiction, but it is almost amusing looking back now, when I struggle to cut a short story under 10,000 words.

Most of the changes are word order issues and cleaning up that speaks for itself.  Another large chunk is showing, rather than telling.  That age-old advice to writers is usually difficult to keep in mind when hammering out your vision on a keyboard, but I find that reviewing after a break tends to catch it.  That is, of course, when it is quite apparent - sometimes the difference is not as clear as text-dump histories vs constant point-of-view observations.

Another problem, and another trait I have found common in fan fiction, is the use of passive voice.  I went through a phase of writing in the passive voice quite consistently, reporting rather than exploring a story, and it is a habit that sometimes creeps in if I don't keep an eye on my writing.  Again, it tends to be easy to catch on a review, but it is also something that I find is not always a problem.  Passive voice, along with telling rather than showing and Stephen King's much-hated adverbs, are often treated as cardinal sins in the writing world, but they exist for a purpose and can be effective.  Toward the end of the passage I have left a segment in passive voice to give the impression that the reader is now a distant, remote viewer of unfathomable proceedings - much as Luke and Leia would likely feel, watching Darth Bane turn on his master and save their lives as they recover from being tortured.  

Hopefully you can see the difference and even more hopefully you agree with me that the revised version is a much more solid piece of writing.  Unlike George Lucas, I tried to restrain myself from cramming in unnecessary fluff.  Either way, let me know what you think.

Until next time, here it is, your moment of zen:

*I do not actually use a pen.  In fact, due to injury I can barely hold one, but consider this pen to be a metaphorical one, mightier than the metaphorical sword.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Where No Fan Has Gone Before...

Time heals all wounds, they say, though I have always wondered how long it might take to heal amputation.  What it doesn't do is make awkward, ugly writing look any better.  I have actually found that given sufficient time, a piece I thought overwrought or found I had to laboriously hack my way through reads as much more pleasant, but a lot of early, unpolished work stands out starkly when you've learned a thing or two and look on it with wiser, more critical eyes.

I wanted to share some of my old Star Wars fan fiction, to show how the medium can be a worthwhile exercise for aspiring authors as well as plain fun.  Unfortunately while looking over the manuscript for an appropriate passage, I have come to realise one thing: it's rough.  Real rough.  Not atrocious and not quite falling into the most egregious traps of fan fiction, though I do flirt with a Mary Sue Author Avatar.  It is not what I would call terrible, and as I believe I said earlier, it is what I have been told is genuinely 'good literature'.  I believed it at the time, and what 14 year old wouldn't consider themselves capable of such a feat in the guise of their own fantasy retelling of the Star Wars Saga?  It was quite the confidence booster,  and it can be hard not to feel deflated looking back and finding dialogue that clunks and cluttered prose that makes me cringe.  Well, at least the dialogue fits with the Star Wars universe, where one might wish they could wish away their feelings of burning hatred for sand.

Being harsh won't do myself much good, though, and in one way looking back at this is also quite uplifting - at least I know enough about the craft to spot the errors and iron out the terrible muddle of words that comes from having written, read and learned so much in the intervening decade-and-a-bit since I penned this tome.  And it really is a tome - 55,000 words gushed out in after-school writing sessions over a couple of months seemed quite a lot at the time.  Then I read some Stephen King and felt terribly inadequate.

Anyway, I had initially planned to simply share an excerpt from my critically-acclaimed work (if you assume everyone who posts on a Star Wars forum thinks themselves a critic).  Instead, I believe it would be more valuable to find a suitable excerpt, shine it up real nice, then post both and explain why the learning I have gone through led me to make certain changes.  Think of it as a working demonstration of editing in practice.

Now, as always, here is your moment of zen:

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


There's nothing quite like finishing a story.  Whether it be a first draft or a first final draft (I see the final draft as the anti-Highlander: there will, inevitably, be more than one), writing those last few words and checking the word count can lead to a little rush, a surge of pleasure, and a sigh of relief.  I just finished a first draft of a story whose idea had been rattling around the back of my mind for about a year, and it feels good to knock that off the To Do list.  I wonder if I should light a cigarette, or would that be crass?

My aim for the story was a word-count of around 3000.  I went about 10% over, but I am quite confident I can shave that away with some strict editing.  I remember as I began learning the craft, after years of just going with the flow and letting my stories surge onto the page; I came across so much advice that revolved around editing, editing, editing.  Trimming lines, cutting the word-count down, even gutting out entire scenes seemed to be among the most strenuously offered advice for aspiring writers.  I always found this a bit of a turn-off, to be honest: I am not overly verbose (not in my stories, at least) and feel I can by and large say what needs to be said with minimum of fluff.  In high school and college I usually had to do a little creative padding to pip past the minimum word-count for essays, not out of laziness but because I had succinctly said what I wanted to.  And I always received high marks, so it was not as if the essays were sorely lacking.  To read the likes of Stephen King labour the point on trimming the fat could be a little troubling, not to mention confusing when you consider the source of that kind of advice.

Editing is of course required - you cannot publish an unfiltered stream of consciousness, unless you are an already famous avant-garde style artiste who can get away with that sort of thing and pretend it equates with bold talent.  Sometimes I do wonder how artists who make their living selling toilets, paint spatters or three line poems ever got taken seriously enough to get away with it.  But getting taken seriously is something that is always a concern to a writer, or any artist, early in their career.  It usually starts with a Presence: appearing where people may see you and becoming known to them.  I began my writing journey with a built-in and very exclusive audience, namely teachers.  Anyone who set my class a creative writing task enjoyed what I would come up with, and sometimes would even share it with my fellow pupils, but naturally they was not enough.  Writers are (very shy) attention-seekers.

So I looked for attention from a wider audience, and no audience could get wider, or more comfortably remote, than the Internet.  I first got online in the late 1990s and with Star Wars fever in full swing and captivating a boy my age (admittedly more due to this than this, at least at first), I had not only an audience but an outlet for my writing.  I began to write Fan Fiction.

No, don't go.  It's not really that bad.  At least, it was not at the time, though perhaps our particular forum was insulated or my own sheltered, naive mind just never came across the rather rank cesspool that fan fiction has become known for in more recent years.  Where I wrote, slash was not at all a sexually suggestive phrase, but simply something you did with a lightsaber.  Hang on a minute...

Anyway, next time I will discuss and share a little Star Wars fan fiction.  Yes, it's silly, it'll never be published and never make a penny, but for a young writer it was a great way to just write.  With characters and scenarios ready to be posed and played with like puppets, it allowed a writer finding their voice to paint a picture with some of the lines already drawn out for them.  It's not Shakespeare, but it is a place a lot of young and enthusiastic writers find their outlet these days, and have done for a decade or more.  It is also a nice, safe proving ground before going out into the big wide world of creating your own characters and settings to be judged by a public that probably has seen it all before by this point.

So, if you're still reading, you have that to look forward to.  I enjoyed it at the time.  I enjoyed the writing, I enjoyed the feedback, and I particularly enjoyed the forum gushing and occasional accusation of writing literature.  Until next time, here it is, your moment of zen:

Cards On The Table

I am an atheist*.

Used to be that saying such a thing was profound, bound to cause a reaction and kind of a distraction from any other topic at hand.  Here the topic is generally writing, but I already branched out a bit to discuss gaming and injected a little politics.  Just a little, since there are more than enough blogs out there to preach at us about how evil this side and that side are.  I bring up atheism, though, for a couple of reasons.

One, it's where a good portion of my traffic is coming from.  I've been commenting on atheist or rationalist blogs and sites for years but never bothered linking to any blog until now.  So hello, heretical unbelievers.  May the Flying Spaghetti Monster, sauce be upon him, touch you with his noodly appendage.

Secondly, I bring it up because it provides an excuse to demonstrate and discuss some of my non-fiction writing.  Writing is both an art and an industrial tool, and while the cliche goes the pen is mightier than the sword, it is generally the pen that gets the swords swinging. 

Writing says a heck of a lot.  Silence says more.  I was raised as a Catholic, but I certainly do not consider myself one now.  Unfortunately, the Catholic church had a rather different opinion on that.  To them, anyone baptised, regardless of lack of consent or their conversion to another faith or just dropping faith altogether, is a Catholic for life.  There are only two ways to get out.  Well, three, but the two ways to get out alive are either excommunication (which only really refers to the sacraments and is temporary, until you say sorry for whatever you did, like helping a dying woman have an abortion so at least one of them will survive) or formal Defection.  The church has kept the idea of Defection quiet for a long time, but it was possible (until recently).  Defection required the filling out of a form, signed by oneself and a Catholic witness, and a letter sent to the bishop of one's diocese to explain why one was defecting.

I sent my letter over a year ago, a couple of months before the Vatican slammed the door on those who wished to leave, in an act of pure cowardice.  Now the Catholic church is rather like the Hotel California...  Anyway, as of yet I have received no reply.  As it has been more than a year, I doubt I ever will.  Perhaps my letter got lost in the post.  Perhaps it fell down the back of a drawer, or under a desk, or otherwise managed to vanish on its way to the bishop's hand.  It's certainly possible.  However, given my experience with the Catholic Church in Scotland, I would not be surprised at all if it was merely glanced at, the first couple of paragraphs being enough to raise a tut of disgust before my letter, my story, was tossed in the bin.

A shame, but not unexpected.  Silence is, after all, the modus operandi of the Catholic church.  But I will not be silent.  I will share the letter itself, though I am not sure anybody is interested in my own tale of woe when so many people suffered such greater pains and injustices at the hands of the church and its agents.  Still, the bastards almost killed me, and I am happy to wash my hands of them.

Dear Mister [Bishop]

Having been baptised since the day I was born, an emergency ceremony performed by the chaplain of [Hospital] as I was gravely ill, it is not lightly that I write to you now to formally declare defection from the Roman Catholic Church. I do so with no personal ill-will toward yourself, but I feel that as an authority of the Catholic Church in Scotland, my reasoning would be best directed to your office.

As is clear from the current media scrutiny cast upon the church, a tsunami of abuse allegations have come to light. These allegations, many accompanied by verifiable evidence, span decades and cross continents. Though they are shocking and repugnant enough, they are but a drop in the ocean of blood and misery wreaked by the Catholic Church over the course of its history. The Crusades; the Inquisition; the witch-trials and burnings of countless women; the current lie that condoms spread AIDS which condemns thousands of Africans to a slow and painful death; turning a blind eye to the persecution of German Jews and the subjugation, forcible conversion and attempted destruction of Europe’s medieval Jews and of indigenous peoples across the planet rank high among the catalogue of horrors wrought by the organisation referring to itself as the One True Faith.

Though one hand attempts to present a contemporary and caring church, a ‘living faith’ that aims to enrich lives, the church crushes this image with the other through its reaction to the current scandal. The response so far can best be described as callous. For the Vatican to refer to the public outcry and the victims’ painful step of coming forward as “petty gossip” betrays a kingly disregard for the church’s own members. That the pope himself would make no direct mention of this tumult in his Easter address [note - this letter was from April 2010] reveals his own disinterest in the flock, and this is underlined by the evidence of his own inaction over the years in dealing with abuse cases. An organisation whose leadership firmly believes that public image is more important than the suffering of victims of serious crimes against both the law and the trusted position of the priesthood is an organisation to which I cannot and will not belong. It is also an organisation I am sure that, if he did exist, Jesus would have thoroughly condemned.

I have spent much of my life dealing with the Catholic Church in one manner or another, and in all this time I have never come across evidence to suggest it is a force for good in this world. I do not believe it is even interested in goodness or in the individual pains of people. It teaches authoritarianism and prejudice, breeding angry, fearful bullies who firmly believe in preserving the status quo at any cost, over the interests of suffering individuals. I attended a Catholic High school where such an attitude was commonplace among the Catholic staff. Children were berated and bullied into compliance with nonsensical, arbitrary rules simply as demonstrations of power. Dissenters were isolated and treated with even more scorn to be used as examples. Asking questions about the One True Faith in classes specifically for Religious Education was met with the shutting down of the discussion and even punishment. When the students themselves followed this example, bullying isolated and vulnerable classmates as clergy and teachers prey on the vulnerable children left in their charge, the school’s senior teachers resisted and ignored calls to deal with the matter. As far as they were concerned, as long as they did not acknowledge the problem, there was no problem. Being bullied myself, my complaints eventually drew the ire of the head teacher. He summoned me for a private chat and, as the Catholic Church continues to do to this day, shifted the burden of blame onto the victim’s shoulders by insisting that I had a maturity problem. He had no interest in helping me, stating “Bullying is a fact of life, and I think you have to grow up and accept it”.

This is the caring, loving ‘Catholic Ethos’ of faith schools we hear so much about. This man now is the Director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service.

So I reiterate: I will no longer allow myself to be counted a member of this organisation. Its very structure is poisonous to the human soul, and it bears the blood of millions on its collective hands. Now, I wash mine of it. I am not a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, child-abusing, mind-warping drone who thinks anyone who disagrees with me deserves to burn in agony for eternity. I am not a Catholic.



Until next time, when we'll be back to writing and fiction, here is your moment of zen:


*as in, I do not believe in any specific, personal deity that has a list of dos, do nots and where you may not put various bodyparts.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Welcome To The Occupation

A break from our usual programming to talk a little bit about this whole #occupywallst thing.

They're right.

Well, brevity is the soul of wit. Now here it is, that cribbed little quirk, your moment of zen:

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Games and Stories

Ironic, I suppose, that my first paid-for published story was entitled The Game, and I found much of my writing inspired and informed by, of all things, video games.  Well, it is ironic as far as Alanis Morissette will stretch the term, since her song seems to often miss the criteria of what is actually ironic.  Which is ironic, come to think of it...

Anyway, The Game was about an all-too-powerful computer system, back in the days when Google was just how you found your porn or the address of a site you couldn't remember off the top of your head.  Now they institution has grown so large in so few years that it is almost scary what they are capable of and how much information their system continually churns through.  But the story is not so much about games, and computer games have often received little literary attention unless it is tabloid shrieking about how the games children play are training them all to be killers.  Naturally these stories invite comments from people who have no sense of irony at all, since they usually suggest that to sort those hooligans out requires a stint in the army.

You could be forgiven for thinking that computer games are little more than colourful, noisy death machines, little evolved from the mass murdering mayhem of Space Invaders to today's twitchy shooters like Call of Duty or Counterstrike.  The video game companies that mass produce this schlock seem to be widely forgiven too, since the First Person Shooter genre sells shedloads with little effort or innovation put into the product.  As long as it looks good and those gifted with decent reflexes and decent bandwidth get to feel the satisfaction of dropping their polygonal prostate in the face of fallen foes, most gamers seem happy.

Not all games are like this, however.  I may come across as a bit of a snob here, like the music journalist who holds his nose while writing about Taylor Swift's chart success, since I am not exactly fond of the mass-market success of selling to the lowest common denominator.  Though I do like Taylor Swift.  What's wrong with jangly country pop?  My point, though, is that while shooting things dominates the landscape like the skyscrapers in a big city, there is a much more interesting underbelly to computer games, beneath the crust.

That's a metaphor there, and those familiar with gaming culture will get just how cool it is as soon as I mention my favourite game of all time: Final Fantasy VII.

FFVII, the JRPG that launched a thousand JRPGs, is an absolutely atrocious game.  It's barely even a game, and by today's standards I feel it would come across more as homework than anything fun.  But back in 1997, when I got my mitts on those three discs, I found myself transported to another world and I was hooked by one simple thing - the story.  This story transpires through voiceless text boxes and the shrugs and gestures of blocky characters, set against pre-rendered backdrops while tinny synth music twitters in the background.  Gameplay consists of scrolling through the text, hitting a button to move on, and occasionally selecting commands from a menu to kill things.  If Word and Excel had a baby and it went through a rebellious streak, this would be the result.

And it was awesome.  Awesome is not a description I use lightly.  I truly was in awe of this story - it's scope, and how the characters made me feel a part of a great plot to save the world from an evil corporation hell bent on stripping its natural resources for profit, whatever the cost.  We started as a band of eco-warriors, bombing power plants, which probably would not be a good start to a protagonist's story these days.  Interesting how history can warp the lens of context.

I won't bore you with the details - if you've played it you'll know it well, and if you haven't, you won't really understand what I'm talking about as I throw a litany of names, places and plot elements at you.  Something epic fantasy writers might want to keep in mind, actually - we can only hold so many funny, unpronouncable names in our head before we run out of RAM and start getting confused.  And bored.  But that's a pet hate of mine - I love fantasy settings, I just so rarely find a good fantasy story that is not off-puttingly bogged down in weird names and fancy historical flourishes that I cannot care about.  Which is partly why I believe Final Fantasy VII was so successful - we are introduced to a core of simple but rounded characters, who have a clear agenda against an identifiable enemy.  Not every story has to be black and white, but this one only begins so; things soon blur as an old ally turns out to be insane and thirsting for a somewhat justifiable revenge, the protagonist suffers an identity crisis and turns out to not be who he said he was, and beats himself up over failing to prevent the death of a leading character.  Aside from the dead character (always helps make a sacrifice more noble and impactful if the deceased is unimpeachable), everybody involved is a little soiled in some respects.  And the globe spanning, world saving epic plot that is the hallmark of JRPGs spins out of the interaction of these core characters and their core antagonists, without feeling like I am going through a textbook as I explore the world organically.

I suppose I'm just rambling about text dumps that I often see in fantasy novels, where an author expects us to retain a slew of information about a fictional civilisation long before we have concrete, immediate reasons to care about the characters in the hear and now.  It's frustrating, again because it clutters up a lot of fiction I'd be interested in.  Or maybe I'm just annoyed because I can never seem to inject that much extraneous detail into a novel.

Another game that I truly enjoy has no story at all.  I think that might be ironic again.  The game I believe I mentioned before - Creatures.  It (and its sequels) is more a computerised biology experiment than a true game.  There is no goal, no reward, no levels to gain or fight through.  There are simply the Creatures, artificial life-forms with digital DNA who act like biological organisms and interact with each other and their environment as such.  It is a fascinating time sink, where you can hatch these things and watch them grow, learn, breed, age and die.  Successful procreation leads to the passing on of genetic traits, and the impact of environmental changes and random mutations can be seen through the generations.  The little things are cute, too:

Anyway, these Creatures have captured my imagination, and for years I have been interested in letting htem loose and watching how they get on. I will likely talk more about them in the future, but until next time, here is your moment of zen:

Monday, 17 October 2011

Hobbies and Interests

The age-old advice to writers is to write what they know, and by extension what they are interested in.  That way their knowledge and passion can shine through from the page and illuminate their vision much more readily for their readers.  This has worked for many writers, from Jane Austen's disdain of high society to J. K. Rowling's obvious mastery of witchcraft.  Resurrecting boarding-school fiction certainly seems like some Dark Arts to me.

Being a writer that writes far too little, I have spent much of my time and energy dabbling in various other things to keep me occupied.  A wide variety of eclectic subjects has piqued my interest over the years, ranging from politics to professional wrestling.  Not surprisingly much of this ends up revolving around writing - I'm hardly likely to get in the ring and tackle a rassler' with my cane.  Maybe if I had a tennis raquet... but the point is, writing seems to be a way in which I am most comfortable expressing myself.  Some people like to dance, some to skate, some to kick a ball around a field.  To me, writing is how I deal with life, blow off steam, and writing is the avenue through which I meet the big wide world.

Of course I don't just write about things - I have to first do things to write about.  Or read about them.  Or watch them.  Then I write, and write, and write.  Not that there's much here to show off at the moment, for much of my writing has been back and forth banter on forums or my thoughts condensed into private emails.  Reviews seem to be the in thing for the moment - everybody has an opinion, and now that everybody has a blog, they feel the need to share that opinion, often in a quirky style with a gleefully silly little rating system at the end.  Like six sleeping kittens out of ten.

And that's a good thing.  It has become a bit der riguer to complain about people complaining, and this being the Internet, what was the next logical step?  But the fact is, the average person has a lot to say and a lot to learn from the average person next to them.  We spout our opinions, we critique TV shows, films, wrestling matches, books, computer games; whatever it is that we last consumed.  Through this process, we become more aware of what we are watching and what makes it tick.  This can be frustrating for writers and producers who cannot seem to satisfy a fickle audience, but the process also forces these creators to up their game and make better media.

There's a lot of media I'm interested in.  Not just wrestling, which I know is a silly soap opera, but it is a very physical representation of how to string stories together.  I have actually learned a lot from wrestling, but that's a story for another time.  Right now, I just wanted to outline some of the things I am interested in, so they don't bewilder you when I drop a post on them now and then.  While this while primarily be a writing blog, I've always got something to write about wrestling, movies, computer games, technology, politics, and philosophy.  If you're the sort of person who just snorted and thought 'great, another idiot wants to tell the world what he thinks', you're probably in the wrong place.  It is a blog, after all, and what else do writers do but tell the world what they think, through words?

Anyway, next time we'll have a post on what I think about a couple of my favourite computer games, one of which is more of a science experiment than a mere game.  And even if no one reads it, at least it'll be a decent writing exercise to collect my thoughts and set them out structurally on a page.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Link to The Game

My first published and paid short story now appears for free at Smashwords.  I rambled a bit about it in my last post and planned to have a link available immediately after, but of course the Internet had other ideas.  Here it is now, hope you enjoy it.  Feedback welcome, as always:

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Game

The Game

The Game was the first short fiction that I wrote and successfully sold.  It appeared in the speculative fiction e-zine Quantum Muse and I recieved a grand total of $11 ($10 for publication plus a $1 tip from the Paypal donate button on the story's page).  Whoever gave me that tip, thank you.

It's not a very long story, about 4000 words, which is seriously pared down from the initial novel I had envisioned this story running into.  But my first novel was already bogged down and I wanted to get my name out there, get some credits under my belt, and see what I could do if I put my mind to it.  I stripped the story of all but its most basic chassis and found that it kept on rolling along, at a brisker clip without all the weight.  It is not a particularly creative story - the premise is a staple of speculative fiction: what if a computer system grows too powerful and wreaks havoc on the world?  In this instance, the computer system was a seemingly benign operating system that a hapless geek found himself on the beta program for - in a Faustian deal that granted him the perfect job and perfect life in exchange for simply giving his blessing to the program.  As with most things that come so easy, he found this life less than fulfilling, and in the end was horrified to find the system he had been happy to endorse was now responsible for missile attacks across the planet, plunging the world into chaos.

And that's where I left things.  Once the world was burned, there was little to explore, at least as far as a short story was concerned.  For the novel, a lot of soul searching, regret and redemption would be the order of the day, but who has time for that in a few thousand words?  Better to let the character rise and fall, burning brightly but briefly.

So that was The Game - a story that shrank to be (somewhat) successful.  If I learned anything from this, it was that you should never be afraid to take advantage of a good idea, even if you do so in a rush.  Sure, I could have used the premise to write another novel that I teased out of the word processor over a period of ten years, but what would that really accomplish?  I was afraid at first to let that idea go for cheap, but the fact is it went for something, and that's a good start.  Well, it's a start of some sort, at least.  And plenty more ideas popped into my head later, so much so that even if I were to become a prolific full-time writer for the rest of my life, I have my doubts I could get every kernal of a novel off my ever expanding to-do list.

I'll be putting up a free link to The Game shortly.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

One small stroke of a keyboard...

One giant leap for a writer with a cane. And let's not pretend this is the first time I have taken the plunge; I've written blogs before. Several times. I just never kept up with them, because posting about a pointless day at 11 at night seemed less important than sleep or beer, and then doing it the next morning seemed less important than catching up on blogs. Pretty soon it had been three weeks without an update and if anyone was even bothering to read it, they would have given up by now, right? So though I have made sporadic forays into fleshing out my story in the big wide blogosphere, it has never stuck. Will it do so this time?

Who knows? I plan for it to work out this time, but I plan for that every time. Still, perhaps this time there is a little more urgency. When I first began writing with a serious mind to being published and getting rich and famous and all that, I was still in high school, Apple computers were still uncool, and the World Trade Center was still standing. I still remember the night inspiration struck, my muse slapping me in the back of the head at around midnight with a wonderful idea for a novel - no, a series of novels - set in a fantasy world where magical fallout drove everyone underground and corporate controlled governments used the confined space and limited resources to keep the dependent population on a tight leash.

The centre-piece for the story (did I just give away that I write in British English?) was to be the setting of the only city where people could see the sun. Naturally it would be the home of the political ruling class, and would be all glass and steel, with a huge canopy stretched over it to keep out the irradiating fallout. That canopy was to be held up by three ancient towers from a long-gone civilisation, the implication being that they were the Empire State Building and World Trade Center towers. This was in August, 2001, and I wrote feverish notes in a little journal I kept under my pillow. Another habit I never actually kept up, but since inspiration strikes me most often in the shower, I'm not sure how I will be able to write notes without just destroying the paper.

I had always enjoyed writing. Creating stories is a joy that is difficult to describe. My favourite author describes it as the most fun you can have with your clothes on, though I have had the odd late-night session at the keyboard without bothering to get dressed. To those with a mind to do it, there is much satisfaction and sometimes bliss to be found in constructing characters and setting out scenes and slapping it all together. It is problem solving, self indulgence and ego-stroking all at once. These characters and their world are entirely in your hands. It is like being a god.

I began creating stories before I could even write. When I first started school, a traumatic experience that is always useful in shaping a writer's soul, we were given single words printed on card and a folder with slots cut in, the idea being we should slot the words together to form a sentence. To set the tone for my over-achieving, goody-two-shoes academic life, I was soon up at the teacher requesting more printed words, because I was trying to write a book and had run out. I probably sounded like Oliver Twist. Who dares ask for more, when all the rest were content with their sparing gruel?

Since then I took whatever opportunities came my way to write and create stories. Mostly these opportunities arose in school, in English lessons when we were set creative writing tasks that amounted to "make something up to prove you understand what the word creative means". I also joined a creative writing youth group for a time, held bi-weekly in the local library. I cannot recall how long I went for; much longer than I ever stuck to keeping a blog, that's for sure. It was invaluable as a space to foster more writing, giving me a specific outlet with specific prompts, and most important of all - an audience. Before my audience had been whichever teacher happened to assign the class a writing exercise, and while they were always pleased with my work, they were pleased if a student could remotely approach correct spelling. I lapped their praise up at the time, but how could I ever truly be sure if what I was writing was worth reading to someone who was not being paid to do it?

For similar reasons to my blogs never taking off, I eventually fell away from this writing group, which I somewhat regret. It had already dwindled to a fairly small core, but at least it was a dedicated one, with an enthusiastic teacher who made no effort to temper our dreams. I started high school (even more traumatic) and had Things To Do. I also had a new outlet for my writing: the Internet. Not blogs, at this time the Internet was still learning to walk and talk, but that wonderful concept known as Fan Fiction. That's another story for another time, but eventually I came to the realisation that I wanted to make my way in the world as a writer, and so began writing background notes for my story in August 2001. In fact there was a specific moment where I decided I wanted to be a writer, and I plan to describe it some day.

Naturally, the story had to change. And after a quick first draft, and as I read more and more fiction and developed and matured my voice, it had to change a heck of a lot more. Now we have sailed past the 10th anniversary and I still find myself tweaking the story from time to time. Perhaps torturing it.

Fortunately there have been other projects in the meantime - I have not spent ten years entirely agonising over this or that aspect of one story. Short stories popped out here and there, along with essays (I even won cash awards from the University of Glasgow for two of my Philosophy essays) and another couple of novels were brought to the boil then thrown on the back burner. I have to admit, while I dreamt once upon a time of my first novel making it big, becoming a film, and sparking a series that could sustain me and a large fandom for decades, that possibility is seeming less plausible as time goes on. Who doesn't dream of that, however daft their first book is? But from that book I learned a lot. What works, what doesn't, what good planning is and what good revision is. More sub plots, deeper characters, stronger twists, these were all things that I think I learned to deal with as I developed the first book from its skeleton form (I thought 30-40,000 words would do, so young I was!), putting meat on its bones. It helped make the rest of my stories go much more smoothly, as I developed good habits and broke some bad ones. Like my love for commas, which I developed in the midst of high school, leading to lots of run on sentences, all because we used to read those 19th Century books, you know the ones, by the likes of Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen, who wrote lots of very, very long sentences, and are entirely unsuitable for a modern market, but who we were told in the strongest terms were very good writers and to be admired, and emulated, because I suppose schools were still struggling to get out of the 19th Century even in 1999, but at least their geography textbooks only had East and West Germany in them and not, for instance, Prussia.

So, enough rambling about myself. Next we'll be looking at a short story I actually had published, and got paid for. Though I suppose that will be a bit more rambling about myself as I talk about my process, my thoughts behind the story and how people reacted when I was rather daring and read it aloud. Until then, if you're reading this - thanks, and get back to writing!